Muscle cramps are very common, but certain foods can help keep them at bay. We take a deep dive into what causes muscle cramps and the best foods to prevent them from throwing you off your game.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
December 10, 2019

Whether it's during exercise or at night trying to get some rest, most people have unfortunately experienced a muscle cramp. But why do muscles cramp, and are there ways to get ahead of it? We dive into what makes muscles seize up and how to prevent muscle cramps through food.

Related: Signs You're Not Getting Enough Potassium and What to Do About It

What Causes Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps are the result of random, involuntary spasms of our motor neurons (the nerves responsible for muscle movement). They can last for anywhere from a few brief seconds to several minutes (awful, we know). There are several reasons why a muscle cramp may come on.

Contrary to popular belief, the most common cause for cramping is actually just general overuse and muscle fatigue. However, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can also play an important role in initiating a cramp. Poor circulation can result in cramps, as well, when your muscles don't get enough blood and oxygen.

Getty Images / praetorianphoto

Cramps can happen to anyone, but they are more common in older adults, athletes and pregnant women. Certain conditions and medications, particularly for thyroid or nerve diseases, can cause cramps too.

Related: 4 Foods to Soothe Sore Muscles

Best Foods for Muscle Cramps

Pictured Recipe: Really Green Smoothie

High-Potassium Fruits and Vegetables

Because many muscle cramps are related to electrolyte imbalance, foods that are high in electrolytes, like potassium, can be helpful in stopping them before the start. Though bananas are the most popular high-potassium food, other foods, including avocados, potatoes and leafy greens, also pack a potassium punch. Check out these 8 Foods with More Potassium Than a Banana for more. Sodium is another electrolyte we lose through sweat, so you may want to make sure you're replenishing your stores. Sports drinks, salted nuts or pretzels, as well as cooking with a little extra salt, can help.

Water

Though this may seem obvious, water can help prevent cramps, as many are caused by dehydration. Drink throughout your workout. Also, carrying a reusable water bottle throughout the day can help you stave off cramps, along with many other health benefits, from better heart health to more supple skin. There are also several hydrating foods that can help you meet your water goals.

Magnesium

Magnesium has been shown to alleviate cramping for specific populations. A study published in Maternal & Child Nutrition found that consuming a magnesium supplement could be beneficial for pregnant women who get regular cramps. Participants who took a 300-mg magnesium supplement for four weeks had significantly greater reduction in cramp frequency and intensity compared to the control group, who received a placebo pill. Check out these 6 Foods High in Magnesium to help prevent cramping at rest.

Myth-Busting: Pickle Juice & Mustard

A 2010 study about pickle juice reducing muscle cramps got a lot of attention. In recent years, it has been common for athletes to take shots of pickle juice to help relieve their muscle cramps (pickle juice is high in sodium). In fact, nearly 25% of athletic trainers administer pickle juice to cramping athletes. However, some physicians are concerned that taking in so many electrolytes when you are dehydrated can be dangerous for your heart, as it influences the volume of fluid in your blood vessels.

A more recent, albeit very small, study in the Journal of Athletic Training found that drinking small amounts of pickle juice did not adversely affect plasma volumes (which could impact your heart), but also didn't do anything positive for preventing muscle cramps. Larger amounts of pickle juice did increase electrolytes, but probably too slowly to fend off exercise-induced cramps. A 2014 study found that pickle juice and mustard did not influence cramping in a positive or negative way. Though they probably won't be the reason your cramp stops, these foods are high in sodium and potassium—and they're also easy to find, cheap and low risk for those who are curious.

Related: How Stretching Can Help You Stay Healthy

Bottom Line

Muscle cramps can come on anytime—whether you're exercising or sleeping—and can be caused by several things, primarily fatigue and electrolyte imbalances. There are several other ways to be proactive about cramps, such as stretching or taking a break to refuel when you feel tired. This can be especially important on hot days or during long workouts. However, drinking plenty of water, as well as eating foods high in potassium and magnesium, can be helpful in stopping a cramp before it starts.

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